Airlines Continue to Tighten Emotional Support Animal Policies While Department of Transportation Works Toward an Appropriate Definition

Author: Brittany C. Wakim

As we reported last quarter, the United States Department of Transportation (“DOT”) recently asked for public comment about amending current regulations relating to the transport of service and support animals based on the increasing concerns and risks that untrained service animals pose to the health and safety of crewmembers and passengers. Although the DOT’s action was in response to the tightening of restrictions by certain carriers, carriers have continued to tighten their restrictions while the DOT reviews this issue.

United, American, Delta, JetBlue, Southwest, and Alaska all have tightened their support animal restrictions this summer.

United Airlines: United reported an increase in the number of comfort animals from 43,000 in 2016 to 76,000 in 2017, which was accompanied by a significant increase in onboard incidents. On January 31, 2018, United prohibited a passenger from bringing Dexter, an emotional support peacock, onboard an aircraft. United now requires that people submit veterinary health forms and immunization records, signed letters from a licensed doctor or mental health professional, and signed certification of training, in order to travel with an emotional support animal. United also asks for veterinarian documentation as to whether the animal has ever scratched, bitten, or attacked a person.

American Airlines: American recently added amphibians, ferrets, reptiles, spiders, waterfowl, goats, hedgehogs, insects, non-household birds, and animals with tusks, horns, or hooves to its list of banned animals. Additionally, American now requires that passengers submit extra documentation at least 48 hours before their flight, including a form affirming that the animal can behave properly in the cabin and a signature from a mental health care professional.

Delta Air Lines: Delta now requires passengers with in-flight service or support animals to submit proof of health or vaccinations and a letter from a doctor or licensed mental health professional explaining why the animal needs to be on board, and to sign a document attesting to the animals’ ability to behave in the cabin. Delta also recently added pit bull-type dogs to its list of banned service/emotional support animals.

JetBlue Airways: JetBlue now requires passengers traveling with emotional support animals to submit a verification from a mental/medical health professional certifying that the animal is for emotional and psychiatric service, a liability form certifying that the animal is trained to behave appropriately in public, and a veterinary health form for the animal. Passengers who have an emotional support animal are responsible for injuries to others or damages to property. Additionally, JetBlue only allows cats, dogs and miniature horses on-board as support animals; like American, JetBlue previously banned the in-cabin transport of hedgehogs, ferrets, rodents, snakes, spiders, reptiles, and animals with tusks.

Southwest Airlines: As of September 2018, Southwest instituted a limit of only one dog or cat, either on a leash or in a carrier. Passengers also will be required to submit a “current letter” from their doctor or mental health professional on the day of departure in order to travel with an emotional support animal.

Alaska Airlines: Beginning October 2018, each passenger will be limited to one dog or cat either on a leash or in a carrier. No other species of emotional support animals will be permitted on-board. This new restriction is in addition to Alaska’s prior requirements that passengers present documentation that the animal is in good health, a letter signed by a doctor or licensed mental health professional, and documentation that the animal is trained to behave in public settings. Similar to JetBlue, passengers with support animals are required to assume responsibility for damage to any property. The DOT has been silent in the wake of these new restrictions. It will be interesting to see when and how the DOT responds.